Northern Soul vests and jackets at TopMan. Jeremy Scott prints based on early-period MTV graphics, James Rizzi and Barney Bubbles. Late Eighties/early Nineties bagginess at Craig Green and E Tautz. And an entire collection based on football casuals from Japanese designer Takahisa Maede. Eighties youth culture was a key reference in the Spring/Summer 2016 men’s collections, but does it really deserve the reverence it is given?
I’m not saying that the youth cults of 1980s Britain weren’t inventive, a great laugh and an important source of identity to a lot of people, but these days people can be so respectful of it that its glory feels like an oppressive weight. Is there a single video of a rave on Youtube without a comment from a forlorn 20 year old wishing they “could of lived thru those days”? Any shakey footage of casuals without some 47 year old bloke claiming his former crew were “number 1 when it mattered”? Is there a sportswear label that hasn’t given up on the present and reinvented itself on the basis of its “80s street style heritage”?
The acclaim is all very well, but with the veteran champions of the various scenes mythologizing them and the genuflecting public lapping up the myths, reality tends to be somewhat tarted up and glossed over. Casuals, whose influence extends this season not only to Takahisa Maede and TopMan but also perhaps to the Stone Island revival, are perhaps the best example. They are now eulogised as a neo-mod movement that wore chiefly European golf and tennis wear with Lois cords and Ball jeans. Of course there’s a great deal of truth in that, but there were in fact lots of different looks over the course of the 80s Golden Years, and some more stylish than others. Here, by way of an evidence, is a selection from the Ins and Outs list from a 1982 issue of The End, the extremely influential fanzine published in Liverpool and much-read by casuals at the time.
Paul Weller’s new haircut
Bobble hats on a dead hot day
Disco Roller Boots
Gold tie pins
The knights who say ‘Nee!!’
Saying ‘I’m trippin’’
Yellow rain gear
Trousers tucked in socks
The full lists ran to about 50 items each. Of course most if not all the observations were piss takes and private jokes understood only by the writers and editors, who included Peter Hooton of The Farm, and the novelist Kevin Sampson. Nevertheless, they were taken seriously by thousands people, particularly those outside Liverpool. I can testify to this because I had a casual period myself, and a few years after the above list was published, my friend Kev and I began wearing bottle-green corduroy jackets with jeans, purely because of Kev’s friends had told him that said jackets had featured high in an End In list. We were far from the only ones turning up at Elland Road looking like teenage geography teachers at the time.
The corduroy-heavy geography teacher ensembles were far from the strangest to be taken to boys’ hearts and wardrobes. My favourite cas-fashion became popular in 1984, when the masses began appropriating the smart, young-golfer-with-a-mullet style. Seeing themselves imitated by copyists, the originators responded by adopting what was known as the Scruff Look: longer hair, check shirts, shearling coats, tweedy jackets, bleached, frayed jeans, trainers with the laces left undone. It could look great on a group of 17-18 year olds, and could result in being laughed at by those who hadn’t caught up yet, which was one of the great aims in life. On the other hand it could look pretty bad on anyone without the verve to carry it off.
If you feel sceptical about the scruff look, by the way, I refer you to a letter from the pages of a 1984 issue of The End:
Lately I have been reading and noticing the scruff look that the scallies are into, and because I follow Liverpool I have seen a few. What I would like to know is where they get the ‘Norfolk’ style tweed jackets from. One national newspaper said that Dunn’s sell them. But when I went to Dunn’s they said they hadn’t sold jackets in that style for a few years… So I would be grateful if you could give me some names of shops that you think sell this style and also the price range. I have enclosed a SAE so I can get a quick reply as I want to be the dresser (scally) in Doncaster with one.
K Johnson’s letter captures much what it was like to be a lonely dresser in the provinces in 1980s Britain. Information hard to come by, horizons short, Dunn & Co one of the few shows in town. Contemporary journalists writing about 1980s youth cultures tend to make a lot of a tribe’s decision to get its clothes from non-fashion outlets like sports shops or army surplus stores, failing to realise that in many towns, such marginal spaces were all there was besides a Dunn and Co, Greenwood’s or department store. If you got bored with what was on offer, it was a question of appropriating something (hence the Norfolk jackets) or boiling up the Dylon (one of the great advantages of Goth was that you could just take fairly ordinary clothes and dye them, giving them new meaning in an all-black ensemble.
There are several other truths that have tended to be obscured by time. Firstly, it ‘s easy to get the idea that there were maybe a ten or so style tribes, all equally cool and rigorous in their own way. In reality there were dozens and dozens, groups dividing and subdividing until in some cases there seemed to be only a handful of members in existence. We all know about Northern Soul, Casuals, Punks, New Romantics, Rastas, Mods and Bikers of course, but what about Cowpunk (a sort of early 80s punk-country fusion, predating the American 1990s Cowpunk by ten years)? Or Oi? Grebo? Psychobilly? The Ted revival? The Rare Groove scene? There was the rump of hippy, and then all the mini cults that never really had a name, like that backcombed hair and raincoat coat thing perhaps most closely associated with Echo and the Bunnymen, or the slightly more mainstream commercial version of Goth that seemed to cohere around Fields of the Nephilim? And on top of that were the personality-based cults that became movements in their own right – Smiths fans, Guns n Roses fans, Madonna obsessives.
Many of the exponents of these styles, myself included, I hasten to add, looked terrible. It was worst when make up was involved.; the right of boys to wear make eyeliner and blusher really is a right worth fighting for, but it was a lot easier to believe that when the boy in question was David Sylvian than Chris Tice, the farm kid from one of the villages near our school. Chris turned up one day wearing blue eyeliner and with his hair coiffed in what you might call a post-new Romantic style. The headmaster sent him home, and while Chris’s admirers grumbled, it was hard to resist the idea that the head might have done him a favour, really.
On that fateful day Chris was also demonstrating another secret truth about 80s youth culture, which was that if you didn’t have the money for the full look, you would have to make do with one or two key signifiers. In this case, from the make up and hair we had to deduce his allegiance to the new Romantics; similarly, a quiff and bootlace tie would suffice for a Ted, and in extreme cases I have seen a pair of white socks and short-legged trousers express Mod allegiance. In most cases, a full look was enough to make you a sort of local celebrity whose legend would live on forever. Like most small towns, the place I lived had one punk, a die-hard, Oi!-listening, bondage trousered and mohicaned 20something called Merv, about 5 years older than me. I think Merv moved out in about 1987, but last year I went to a school reunion and his name was still being mentioned with the same reverence it was when he used to scold us for thinking the Sex Pistols after Never Mind The Bollocks was “true punk.”
That allegiances could be shown with only a few items of clothing and a haircut meant it was quite easy to defect from tribe to another, and the frequency with which this is another fact quite often swept beneath the carpet of history. One night in the mid to late Eighties I met another boy at school, Phil Hutchinson, out in a pub in town, and hardly recognised him because he had switched from spikey, dyed black hair and leather jackets to a crop, cagoule and Armani jeans.
“What are you wearing, Hutchy?” I asked. (We were very imaginative with nicknames)
“Proper gear now,” he said.
“I thought you were a goth?”
“Casual now. Been going to Leeds and you have to be dressed right.”
“Oh,” I said. The thing I most remember about this conversation looking back is that, although casuals and goths had very different values (ie the former liked fighting, the others really, really didn’t) I didn’t think that much of it. Youth cults are often depicted as loyal gangs of lads who would rather die than renounce the sartorial code bonding them and their mates, but while that was undoubtedly true for many people, a large degree of promiscuity was tolerated by many others. That’s probably why it was so easy for everyone to pile into raves after 1988. After all, there was so much to choose from! Why limit yourself? Lots of people switched between cultures that were similar – from metal fan to goth, or punk to New Romantic, or revivalist mod to casual were relatively small steps, in the grand scheme of things – but there plenty of bigger leaps too, and only the serious gulf-jumpers attracted serious derision. I can think of one who crossed from biker to mod, but I’m not sure he was ever taken seriously by either side – or anyone at all, possibly – again.
Looking back, the mix-and-match flexibility adopted by many in that decade might have been part of a reaction against the seriousness of the 1970s. “Youth culture” is sometimes spoken of as if it has evolved fairly smoothly between the 1950s and now, with a multifarious flowering in the Seventies and Eighties., but this overlooks the tensions between different generations. The first half of the 1990s, for instance, was a rejection of the crass materialism of the mid 1980s, the waify, fucked-up fashion aesthetic a repudiation of all those buff, heroic Amazonian models. Similarly, anything interesting that happened from late Seventies onwards was a rejection – conscious or otherwise – of pious hippies who had placed far too much faith in the Underground’s potential to save the world.
True, the casuals, cowpunks and psychobillies might not have actually been aware of the schism, but the pious hippies certainly were. Laying into David Bowie for commercialising the idea of the Underground in 1976, sociologists Ian Taylor and Dave Wall lamented the success of “consumer capitalism’s attempt to re-create a dependent adolescent class, involved as passive teenage consumers in the purchase of leisure prior to the assumption of ‘adulthood’ rather than being a youth culture of persons who question (from whatever class or cultural perspective) the value and meaning of adolescence and the transition to the adult world of work.”
It’s hard to grasp on first reading – perhaps the comma-makers union was on strike in 1976 – but what Tayor, Wall and their ilk resented was Bowie concentrating on fantasy and dressing up, rather than promoting the earnest, authentic politics of hippies, rastas or skinheads. Of course they were missing the fact that at that stage, a farm kid wearing eye make up to a comprehensive school in Yorkshire could be just as subversive in its way as an anti-war demo or the setting up of a commune, but then that’s why you can’t trust sociologists to explain pop stars.
The problem for the Sixties and early Seventies hippy generation was that it was obsessed by the idea of everyone getting in touch with their real self and rising up as a diffuse but united body. Carried away with the idea, it overlooked a) how white, male and heterosexual its idea of the “one” was, and b) the fact that lots of people don’t want to get in touch with their true self, preferring instead to transcend it and enter a more fun version that they have imagined. If you ask me, that as much as anything explains the weird proliferation of youth cults in Britain between punk and rave, though messrs Taylor and Wall would have disagreed I’m sure.
It will be pleasing to see so many of those cults revived in the collections of so many menswear designers this Spring, and it seems right that they are recognised as the great sources of sartorial style and innovation they were. But let’s remember that these will be honed, perfected versions of cool, free of the blunders and deviances of the real thing. And let’s remember too that many of the successes came from reckless experiment rather than mimicry of the past. The version of tale that omits cowpunk, the scruff look and K Johnson’s quest for a Norfolk jacket is only half the story at best.